Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is lifting the statewide mask mandate at the same time, coinciding with his earlier plan to end capacity restrictions at all businesses, including outdoor and indoor sports and entertainment venues, on Saturday.
“Today is the day so many of us have been waiting for and working toward,” Hogan said at a news conference Friday afternoon.
“We finally do clearly see that light at the end of the tunnel,” he added. “Our long hard-fought battle against the worst global pandemic in more than a century is finally nearing an end.” Ankoor Shah, the head of the District’s vaccine program, said that the city’s health department is still discussing how its specific mask guidance will change in light of Thursday’s mask guidelines by the CDC and that details will be released before the end of next week.
The lifting of masking requirements in Maryland and Virginia reflected increasing confidence among state officials that the region’s coronavirus case numbers will continue their downward trend as more people continue to get vaccinated. But some experts worried that the movement would prove too hasty if it was not accompanied by some way to verify that maskless people had indeed been fully vaccinated. Hogan said that it would be a “logistical nightmare” to try to figure out who is vaccinated and who isn’t, and that it was much “easier to just lift it all and give people good advice” about getting vaccinated.
In Virginia, Northam’s office said the change was based on the honor system and the state has no plans to require a “vaccine passport” or any proof that someone has received the shots. “Anyone who is not vaccinated is strongly encouraged to wear masks in all settings,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said.
The state will lift the potential misdemeanor criminal penalty for refusing to wear a mask, though Yarmosky said no one has been prosecuted for that charge since it was imposed last year. Employees of certain businesses, however, will be required to continue wearing masks indoors if they are not fully vaccinated. Those include workers in restaurants, retail, fitness, personal care and grooming, and entertainment.
Businesses also will be allowed to require mask-wearing by customers and employees. Masks will continue to be required in all K-12 school settings, Yarmosky said.
In addition, Northam plans to lift all of the state’s limits on business capacity and social distancing May 28 — sooner than the June 15 date he had previously announced. “Virginians have been working hard, and we are seeing the results in our strong vaccine numbers and dramatically lowered case counts,” Northam said in a news release. “That’s why we can safely move up the timeline for lifting mitigation measures in Virginia. I strongly urge any Virginian who is not yet vaccinated to do so — the vaccines are the best way to protect yourself and your community from COVID-19.”
The state of emergency that allows people to wear face coverings in public will expire at the end of June. Northam plans to find a way to make it legal for those who wish to continue wearing masks to do so but has not yet settled on a mechanism, Yarmosky said.
The fate of masks in the District was still unresolved on Friday. D.C. City Administrator Kevin Donahue said in a call with council members that a new mayoral order and revisions to health guidance were likely to come out between Monday and Wednesday, clarifying new regulations before most capacity restrictions in the city are lifted May 21.
But council members pressed for details related to the new CDC guidance, notably how the changes could impact local businesses. D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said he has heard from small retailers who are concerned that the CDC guidelines could lead to more leniency around mask-wearing — possibly leading some business owners to try to verify their customers’ vaccination statuses, “which is an impossible thing to ask of them.” Shah, the vaccine chief, said the city is aiming to move away from sector-specific guidance “that can get confusing very quickly” to “simple and broad-based guidance.”
In Maryland, Hogan said the state Department of Health has issued a public health advisory strongly recommending that all residents over the age of 2 who have not received a vaccine should continue to wear a face covering when they are in indoor settings and when they are in crowded outdoors settings. Private businesses and local jurisdictions are allowed to create their own policies on who should and should not wear masks, Hogan said
Officials in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties said they would follow the state’s guidance. Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) announced Friday that the suburb will lift capacity restrictions at all indoor and outdoor venues, in line with state guidance, effective Monday at 5:01 p.m. The move went further than her announcement this week that she would partially roll back restrictions.
But in Prince George’s, masks will still be required for all indoor venues, while on public transportation, and at crowded outdoor venues including concert venues and ticketed sporting events.
Alsobrooks said the county will consider future changes to mask requirements based on key covid-19 metrics and vaccination rates among residents.
Baltimore City officials said late Friday that they would relax capacity restrictions Saturday but would keep the masking requirement intact until more of the city’s residents are vaccinated.
Other counties, such as Montgomery, which had already indicated it would not follow Hogan’s lead on lifting capacity restrictions, did not immediately announce their stance on the lifting of the masking mandate.
Some public health experts said the move is coming too soon in the pandemic. Leana Wen, a visiting professor at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, said she was surprised by the CDC’s abrupt announcement on Thursday.
“I really agree that there should be no restrictions on fully vaccinated people — however, how do we know that they are fully vaccinated?” she said. “Many people who are opposed to masks in the first place and were begrudgingly wearing masks now have free range to walk around maskless and potentially infect other people,” including children and people who are immunocompromised.
Wen said there should be a stepwise progression on lifting mask mandates. For example, she said, businesses should go to 100 percent capacity if they verify the vaccination status of their customers and those customers who are inoculated could go maskless.
Donald Milton, professor of environmental health at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, said the CDC mask guidance complicates what had already been a thorny public policy challenge over masking. The bifurcated recommendations for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals are hard to enforce, he said, and may be premature given the prevalence of coronavirus variants in the country. Local and state governments, he said, should keep an indoor masking policy in place for all individuals.
He said he would advise residents to keep masks on at indoor public places like stores and restaurants, even if they’re vaccinated.
“That keeps it simple,” he said.
Rachel Chason and Rebecca Tan contributed to this report.